Savon de Marseille
For me, there was nothing sexy about soap. I grow up with liquid bath products coming out of plastic bottles covered in banal branding design. The only soap I knew was the industrial Unilever bars sold in the hand sanitizing section of supermarkets because nobody in Vietnam want to use soap and if they do, it’s rarely for the body. For my parents, soaps evokes memories of the war time when they came in the form of the crappy, greasy, low grade military aid. For youngsters like me, soap is the cheap alternative to shower gel, only without the advertised moisturize balance formula, the fancy aromas, and the convenient and clean bottles; something you buy when you can’t afford any other options.
My perception of soap changed when two friends from Marseille visited my husband and I and, as a gift, they brought us some bars of Savon de Marseille. As a French native, my husband cherished the gift. He arranged the bars by colors and scents. Anytime we started a new one, he made me sniff through the entire collection to choose, a small ritual that I never thought of doing with soap. To me, well, the scents were rather homogenous. There was this waxy smell that got in the way, so lavender soap smelled vaguely like a dried petal encased inside a thick candle block and olive oil soap smelled like wax.
But it wasn’t the aroma that particularly intrigued me. The soaps that I knew either came in untasteful supermarket wrap or fancy designer’s packaging – like in the case of Nest, Pelle and Rogers & Gallet, to name a few. Marseille soap was… naked. There wasn’t even a clear plastic wrap. Nor was there a brand name. In fact, it was a piece of raw cut – the pebbled edge from the cutting was present – with Savon de Marseille debossed on one side and 72% d’huile végétale on the other. The earthy colors carried this charming, unrefined patina of an artisan product.
Savon de Marseille has a beautiful story, one that I was once oblivious about and was extremely happy to have discovered. Folk history has it that merchants in the south of France started making soap in the early 12th century, although the first written record of such profession dated to the 14th century. The soap here are made with Mediterranean sea water, olive oil, and alkaline chemicals, with an option of added essential oils – all of which are abundant around Marseille in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.
It was not until the Edict of Colbert in 1668 that Savon de Marseille was officially recognized as a brand of quality (see translated version on The Frenchy Bee). Among the strict regulations that the edict imposed to ensure consistency in quality was the critical condition that Marseille soap could contain no oil other than pure olive oil. As history progressed, olive oil’s availability fluctuated and new materials became more accessible. Marseille soap makers extended their recipe to include vegetal fats such as palm, copra and soy oil. This year, the Marseille Soap Manufacturers Association (ASFM) submitted a Protected Geographical Application which mandates that Savon de Marseille has a minimum overall fatty acid concentration of 68% of the mass of the finished product, although most Marseille soaps circulating in the market come with a promise of 72% vegetal oil stamped onto the bar. The Association also specify restrictions in the amount of alkali, sodium chloride, glycerol and superheating agents to maintain the renowned purity of Savon de Marseille. In a very French fashion, the ASFM lays out in details not only the traditional manufacturing process but also the regions and material origins in order for a bar of soap to carry the Savon de Marseille label – an informative read if you are interested.
According to ASFM’s document, the making of Marseille soap follows the age-old Marseilles process. This process can be broken down into two steps: 1) saponification – obtaining the paste from vegetal oil, sea water and alkaline, and 2) manufacturing – adding substances to the paste and making the final product. The first step, saponification, entails an up-to-24 hour heating of vegetal fat and soda in large cauldron. Salt adding, cooking, sodium chloride solution aided washing and liquidation using water are performed in separated steps to purify and give the paste its consistency. At the end of the first step, the paste is left to dry and form “chips.” The second step starts with blending the “chips” with added ingredients such as essential oils, compressing the blend into a soft solid mass, cutting and molding, and packaging as needed.
Several factories in the region offer tours where you can see the entire fabrication process. I went to the Savonnier Marseillaise de la Licorne, a traditional producer with the renowned unicorn logo. In this factory, soap for the skin is still made with olive oil as in the Edict of Colbert time, while the white-colored palm oil soaps are marketed for laundry and household cleaning.
Speaking of Savon de Marseille packaging one can speak a lot, or nothing, because the rustic, old-fashioned, honest look has become an icon for an old-fashioned formula that stands the test of time. Marseille soap comes in two basic forms: 1) rectilinear, which includes various shapes from square to rectangle, and the notorious 600g (1.3lbs) cube and 2) shaped such as the famous fish and cigale (cicada). These two forms require to different types of molds, the latter comes in two part like a waffle maker.
The main drawbacks of soap in general can be that they are too dry or too oily, cleans to much or does not clean enough, leaves too much aroma or no aroma at all, melts too fast or stays rock hard in contact with the skin. Marseille soap walks the fine line between all those stereotypical extremes. In fact, it is a wonderful product that goes beyond the trendy all-natural artisan-made with a history but with questionable quality cliche. As a bath product, Savon de Marseille cleans and gives the skin a balanced, natural moist. Sophisticated as they are known to be, the French prefer the smell of “clean” beyond any artificial perfume, and Marseille soap gives you exactly that feeling. My mother in law taught me a trick to remove red wine stain – pouring salt on the stain to absorb the liquid then washing it with Marseille soap. Voila – c’est magique!
L’Occitane, founded by Olivier Baussan in Haute Provence, is credited with restoring and renewing Marseille and Provence soap’s identity as a pristine beauty product. When Baussan started his business in the 19th century, soap from the region was associated with laundry and dishwashing. Today, Savon de Marseille are being sold widely in and outside of France as both personal care and household cleaning product. In France, it retains its legacy of a trustworthy quality, traditional, local product at a low price. While you will most likely find Savon de Marseille in its notorious appearance – naked, stamped, with rustic shapes colors – many brands pick up the opportunity to dress up the soap in well-designed packaging. Like choosing Champaign or Comte cheese, when buying Marseille soaps, you should keep an eye out for the region of origin (at least until their region protection application is accepted), the content, and the actual feeling of the skin when used.
Beyond my preference for a natural product, I cherish the story, the cultural identity and the quality in this humble, honest piece of soap. Sure the soap will try to slip between my finger overtime it is wet but I don’t mind given the perks of this natural craft product. And who knows chasing soap can be a fun ritual to spice up the otherwise boring morning shower.
Feature images by Maria Carr of Dreamy Whites – check out her beautiful blog and vintage French shop if you have time.